The single most effective tool for productivity & sanity

A lot of people getting into freelancing or starting their own companies frequently ask me, “how do you not feel overwhelmed when having many clients or projects at the same time?” My answer always stays the same: Time management and focus.

I simply can’t stress enough how time management and efficiency are key to producing good results when working on your own. When in a company, people around you are going to act as your ticking clock, putting pressure when needed, making sure to send that additional email asking if you are going to hit that deadline. These people are your safety net.

However, things tend to change when you work on your own. You gain more flexibility. You are the sole owner of your time, and people will usually bother you much less when it comes to management and schedule, as long as you are producing good results. But that’s a double edged priviledge. Most freelancers struggle with keeping it together given all that flexibility.

In the design world, flexibility means responsibility, and being on top of everything without the need of external triggers to motivate you is a serious challenge.

Task management tools won’t cut it

I have always considered myself a productivity freak. When working at companies, I would look for all sorts of tools and widely popular methodologies to make my teams more efficient, which in reality produced great results.

When I started working on my own, however, I couldn’t apply a single thing that I had been using before successfully. The thing is, most productivity tools, task management software, automated workflows and what not are in reality based on the foundation of a team. Project management platforms and task managers never work when you are on your own, as they rely on team members for activation and continuous usage.

Introducing the notebook.

I remember myself being very picky towards friends using pen & paper to take notes and keep an agenda. I considered it old-fashioned and a waste of time and energy. However, as soon as I gave it a try I discovered its efficiency and immediately saw my productivity and focus getting a huge boost.

The notebook become my most effective productivity tool.

How to use it

The way I started using the notebook was extremely simple. And that’s where its success lied. It didn’t take getting used to. It had no learning curve. It was shockingly satisfying at all its simplicity. And most importantly, I could do whatever the heck I wanted with it.

Let’s try explain briefly the method that has helped me remain sane, healthy and productive for the past 3 years.

  • Step 1 — At the beginning of each day, note down all the tasks you have to perform on a page, along with a simple box next to them 🔲. Try and break down bigger tasks into smaller ones as much as you can (very important).
  • Step 2 — Group tasks by sections, according to the way you work. I work with a lot of clients at the same time and therefore I have separate sections for each client, one for personal work and another for various, administrative things like paying bills and accounting, calls etc.
  • Step 3 — Write down an estimation of how much time each task is going to consume 🕓. This is optional, but it has helped me tremendously in making better estimations and knowing what types of tasks consume most of my time. It requires tracking your time when working, which for some people might seem akward at first, but it’s the single most effective way to stay focused. When I’m timing a task, I don’t let any distractions interrupt my process. I don’t pickup the phone, I block all notifications.
  • Step 4 — When completing a task, mark it as done by checking the box next to it. This feels ridiculously good. 💪🏻
  • Step 5Modify this workflow according to your needs. This is the key to understanding the notebook method. There are no rules, there are no restrictions. No fancy forms and readymade workflows. You experiment with the method, try variations that make sense for you and adapt it to what you actually need. Don’t want to time your tasks? That’s perfectly fine. Want to combine it with Pomodoro? No problem.
An example page of my method. Note the sections, tasks, and boxes with estimated and actual time.

After a couple of years of using this technique, I discovered that the way I was managing my tasks was similar to what others have named “The bullet journal” method. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one using a daily checklist with simple symbols to categorize and tag specific types of information.

What’s beautiful about this is that it’s not written in stone (pun intended, unless you are using a stone paper notebook). You try it, you modify it, you are pretty much the only one who is judging. If it doesn’t work the way others suggest it, you give it a personal twist.

Why it works

Instead of getting into the science behind the technique using fancy slang and abbreviations, I’m simply going to quote a Lifehack article that explains it in the simplest way possible.

What this and other tests suggest is that when we write — before we write, although indistinguishably so — we are putting some degree of thought into evaluating and ordering the information that we are receiving. That process, and not the notes themselves, is what helps fix ideas more firmly in our minds, leading to greater recall down the line.
But there’s something else going on, too. When we write something down, research suggests that as far as our brain is concerned, it’s as if we were doing that thing. Writing seems to act as a kind of mini-rehearsal for doing. I’ve written before about how visualizing doing something can “trick” the brain into thinking it’s actually doing it, and writing something down seems to use enough of the brain to trigger this effect. Again, this leads to greater memorization, the same way that visualizing the performance of a new skill can actually improve our skill level.

The other reason it works, at least for me, is that checking that completion box gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment. You might wonder, why would this be so different than marking a task as complete on an Asana or Trello board? Trust me, it simply is.

Are you using a method similar to the above? It would be great if you could share it in the comments. If not, give it a try and let me know your thoughts!

PS: Just checked the box for publishing this article. ✍🏻

Filippos Protogeridis is an impact driven product designer working with leading tech companies in both Europe and the US, transforming ideas into engaging experiences. He has extensive experience in working with both consumer as well as business facing companies across multiple industries, from mobile marketing to food, travel, retail and localization automization. You can see some of his work on Behance or Dribbble, or visit his LinkedIn profile.

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